By Daniel R. Porterfield, Ph.D.
Published in the Houston Chronicle March 30, 2012
In Houston and across the country, the cry for education reform has been buttressed by evidence of an academic achievement gap for low-income and minority children - data showing lower test scores, lower high school graduation rates, lower levels of college readiness and, tragically, lower expectations and leveled aspirations.
These realities portend many threats to long-term American competitiveness and prosperity, including the probability of a widening leadership gap. This term refers to the critical divide among communities depending on whether their members possess the knowledge, skills and social capital to lead America's most influential economic, political, educational and civil institutions.
Today, the leadership gap is all-too pronounced. Data from the U.S. census and industry-watch groups show that low-income and minority communities provide only small percentages of our scientists, military leaders, judges, economists, technology entrepreneurs, doctors, journalists and business owners.
Only one in 11 students from U.S. families that make less than $39,500 now earns a four-year college degree, and low-income and minority communities are the country's fastest-growing populations. Unless we make changes quickly, the leadership gap will become a chasm.
To address this threat, highly selective national colleges and universities like the one I lead, Franklin & Marshall College in Pennsylvania, should do more to embrace students from low-income communities. But unfortunately, as Andrew Delbanco wrote recently in The New York Times, the nation's top 150 colleges - the schools so accomplished at launching young adults into lives of impact - currently enroll only 3 percent of their undergraduates from America's lowest economic quartile.
We have a historic opportunity to change course. Across the country, from Denver to Washington, D.C., and from New Orleans to New York, we now see bold leaders, educators and communities working to improve the effectiveness of public schools. While this movement rightly takes different forms in different cities and states, with varying emphases on curricula, teachers, schools, assessment, family responsibilities and the structure of school systems, the driving goal is always the same - to empower all students with a first-class education.
Consider Houston, a national leader in education reform. Not only does Houston host one of the country's largest Teach For America corps - teams of high-achieving college graduates who serve as change agents in the classroom and beyond - but the Houston Independent School District also incubated the first public charter school in the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) network, which now claims more than 100 schools nationwide. Reformers in Houston created the YES Prep Public Schools Network, which is setting high standards for student learning, and also the Cristo Rey Jesuit College Preparatory School, the Catholic school where low-income students learn life lessons working part-time to raise 70 percent of the school's operating costs.
With demonstrated progress in preparing students for college success, innovations like these in some of the country's public schools and school systems show promise in closing the leadership gap. But the K-12 education reform community needs and deserves more support.
America's leading colleges and universities should team up with the reform movement now. We need to seize opportunities to provide more students from the full American mosaic with the kind of rigorous liberal arts education and holistic growth that transforms talented 18-year-olds into lifelong learners and leaders.
As just one illustrative example, Franklin & Marshall College is recruiting strong students from public-school systems that are intensively reforming themselves, like those in Houston, Miami, New York and Los Angeles, as well as from high-performing new school networks like KIPP, YES Prep, Cristo Rey, Achievement First, Green Dot, Mastery and others, utilizing a substantially enhanced student aid budget.
In addition, working with the Posse Foundation, which matches striving students from working families with partner institutions that award full scholarships, F&M also will become the first liberal arts college to enroll 10 Posse undergraduates per year to pursue degrees in science, technology, engineering or mathematics fields. And the college has created a new summer program to bring to campus 60 accomplished high school students from education reform communities to study environmental science with F&M professors, explore conservancies and coal mines with undergraduates, learn the nuances of campus life at an elite college, and receive guidance in how to apply for admission and financial aid.
The real work has just begun, and F&M hopes to do much more to close the leadership gap. It's inspiring to see top national institutions like Rice, Davidson, Georgetown, Tulane and Colby also taking strong early steps in partnership with the education reform community to give more underrepresented students an empowering education. Let's hope that colleges and universities can do more to work, learn and grow together. In an era of bold education reform, each of us can make a difference, and all of us should try.